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Kensington mural

As rapid urbanization continues to pose a significant threat to the well-being of people, Creative Placemaking has emerged as an evolving field of practice, driving a broader agenda for positive change, especially in blighted areas of cities. Leveraging lessons learned from a recently completed project called “Art Enlivens,” I have explored the impacts of low-cost, creative placemaking strategies in enhancing the public realm by bringing diverse people together and creating a strong sense of community in the bustling neighbourhood of Kensington Market in Toronto.

Community engagement pop-up event at Bellevue Park in Kensington Market. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Shahryar Nowzari

Creative placemaking is a relatively new concept in the field of landscape architecture and urban design that seeks to integrate arts and cultural activities into the design and development of the public realm. At its core, creative placemaking focuses on creating spaces that are functional, authentic, and reflective of the community in which they exist. Therefore, in-depth and broad community engagement is an essential component of all creative placemaking projects, as it allows residents, businesses, and other stakeholders to have a voice in the design and development of their community.

Community members were asked to choose their favourite design option and explain why. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Shahryar Nowzari

Another important aspect of creative placemaking is providing opportunities for communities to engage with each other and their environment in new and meaningful ways. It helps strengthen a sense of community and belonging, leading to stronger social networks, increased civic engagement, and improved quality of life for residents.

Last year, in collaboration with Toronto-based visual artist Yasaman Mehrsa, I led a project called “Art Enlivens”—primarily funded by an internal DIALOG scholarship called the Iris Prize, which I received in 2021. Driven by a lifelong love of art and a passion for improving urban life through placemaking, I sought a prominent yet underappreciated site where a new placemaking project could make a noticeable public impact. The west wall of 620 Dundas Street West fit the bill perfectly. My main goal for the project was to inspire more urbanists to see the value of creative placemaking in bringing diverse people together, engaging them in meaningful conversations, amplifying their voices, and, in doing so, triggering social, political, environmental, and economic change in Toronto’s public realm.

The pop-up was facilitated by engagement experts from DIALOG in multiple languages. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Shahryar Nowzari

Situated at the intersection of Dundas Street and Denison Avenue, the two-story wall, which was previously heavily vandalized, has been completely transformed into a vibrant and lively community showcase. For over a year, I worked closely with the artist, local property owners, and community members to create an artwork that meaningfully reflects and celebrates local culture and civic identity. After consulting with key stakeholders, I hosted a series of public consultations in nearby Bellevue Square Park, allowing neighbours and community members to voice their priorities and provide feedback on conceptual design schemes. The engagement of the community, through in-person and online channels, fostered a sense of inclusivity among individuals and organizations associated with the neighbourhood. This resulted in their active participation and willingness to collaborate with me towards influencing the outcome of the mural.

The mural during installation. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Shahryar Nowzari

The chosen design? Quintessential Kensington. Dubbed “A Joy to Ride,” a winged figure riding a bicycle sits at the heart of the mural, framed by the eclectic, colourful row houses and majestic trees that characterize the neighbourhood. Musical motifs also accent the eclectic mural, with the bicycle’s back wheel enlivened by a drum and gour—a nod to neighbouring business (and Kensington Market staple) the African Drums and Arts Crafts store. “The African drum and its rhythms that are vibrating reflect our identity,” says owner Saikou Saho.

Artists painting the west side  of the property. IMAGE/ Courtesy of FOTOGRAFIA INC.

True to the project’s spirit, the installation of the mural was itself a collaborative endeavour, with colleagues, friends, and community members joining me to reinvent the wall. The result is a mural that celebrates the neighbourhood and extolls the spirit of inclusivity, diversity, and artistic expression that makes Kensington Market a civic landmark.

The mural has been embraced by neighbours, starting with Maclean Frey, a Kensington Market resident whose front door forms part of the artwork. “I am obsessed with the splashes of colour onto my door,” says Frey. It’s a sentiment echoed by Noah Pillay, operations manager at neighbouring Kensington Automotive. “One of the coolest things about this mural is that it does a really good job of painting a picture of what people in this neighbourhood are like,” says Pillay. And the placemaking gesture is a boon for business. “We love the fact that we are now known as the mechanic shop with the mural. It’s out of the ordinary for us,” adds Pillay’s colleague Yifan Feng. “Everyone I know in the neighbourhood is thrilled with the result,” says Su Alexanian, chair of the Kensington Market Action Committee community group.

Artists were painting the wall following the design chosen by the community. IMAGE/ Courtesy of FOTOGRAFIA INC.

The main lesson that I learned from this project is landscape architects should be proactive in employing creative placemaking in our everyday work by thinking beyond traditional design elements and considering the social, cultural, and environmental impact of our designs. This can be achieved by:

Engaging the community in the design process: landscape architects can leverage the power of arts and culture in engaging community members in the design process through interactive workshops, pop-ups and other outreach efforts. This can help ensure the final design reflects the needs and desires of the community, while also building trust and ownership among stakeholders.

Paints and other materials were provided by the City through StreetARToronto’s Support Mural Program. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Ben Dickey

Incorporating art into the design of the public realm: landscape architects can work with artists and community members to incorporate public art installations, murals, and other cultural elements into their project designs. These elements can help create a sense of place and identity within a community, while also promoting social interaction and cultural exchange.

Promoting art-driven community programs: landscape architects can promote arts-related community programs and events, such as festivals, farmers' markets, and other cultural activities, that encourage residents to engage with the public space and each other.

The owner of African Drums Store painting the wall together with the community members. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Ben Dickey

The Art Enlivens project provided me with a unique opportunity to practice creative placemaking during a critical time in our history. The pandemic and protests for racial justice enabled creative placemakers to draw attention to injustice, amplify diverse voices, and create new opportunities for socially-distanced community gatherings and engagement. The pandemic also increased our appreciation for the outdoors and emphasized the importance of investing in public spaces. To me, the project was more than just another mural in Toronto; it was a chance to establish lasting relationships and contribute to a stronger sense of community. The lessons and experiences from this project will stay with me for a lifetime.

Community members painting the south side of the property with supervision from the artist. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Ben Dickey

Text/ Khatereh Baharikhoob is a senior urban and landscape designer who has worked on numerous neighbourhood and master plans, parks, and public realm projects which integrate urban design, landscape architecture, and placemaking strategies.

A Ride to Joy, community-engaged mural after completion. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Shahryar Nowzari